Sunil Jain never let friendships come in the way of truth and of his convictions. This is what made people admire him and what made his relationships across the world so strong.
He had a child-like glee in his eyes, after having come into possession of the latest, cutting-edge, Microsoft Surface Book. He had been complaining about his old laptop for a while, so the Surface Book was quite an upgrade for 2016. It was one of the first few in India — he could detach the screen and use it like a tablet, he loved making notes and this one had a stylus.
However, soon it started giving trouble. No engineer in the office could figure it out and the venerable editor’s smile turned into a smirk turned into a frown, one that many of us who were privileged enough to work with him were quite familiar with.
So after a week of failed attempts, Sunil (and his frown) decided to complain about the device to Microsoft. He opened the email client on his old cranky laptop and wrote: “Dear Mr. Nadella, Your surface book doesn’t work…” and proceeded to list down all that was wrong with it. Mr Nadella, in turn, immediately forwarded the mail to the head of Microsoft in India who promptly got in touch with Sunil and offered him a brand new Surface Book in exchange.
Any other customer would be ecstatic. But not Sunil. He responded: “Thank you for the offer, but I still want to understand, why is this one broken and why can’t it be fixed?” Good money was paid for a product, and Sunil wanted answers.
Conversely, when it came to getting admitted to a hospital to be treated for Covid, he refused.
I asked him, as a person with chronic asthma in polluted Delhi, why he was so averse to being hospitalised? He told me he didn’t want to be a burden on his friends, he didn’t want to make uncomfortable phone calls and put even more stress and pressure on the hospitals in Delhi, already strained and breaking.
How do you reconcile these two acts of the same Sunil Jain? By recognising that he always thought of a larger purpose in his decision-making.
All the messages and calls I have received after Sunil’s passing away Saturday night, and all posts on social media have a common theme: They speak of his unquestionable integrity. He never let friendships come in the way of truth and of his convictions. A fundamental principle of good journalism was, essentially, his second nature. This is what made people admire him and what made his relationships across the world so strong.
From the President, Prime Minister, Finance Minister and Commerce and Industries Minister to leaders in the Opposition to corporate heads, all were united on his commitment to the profession and his unique insights — because he was never afraid to speak his mind, whatever its consequences, he found trends before any one could pick them up.
People in government disagree with editors all the time, they disagreed strongly with him as well. But no one ever questioned his intentions. Neither did his readers.
So he could be critical of the government’s pace of disinvesting PSUs. Flagging that they used to account for 22.5 per cent of BSE’s market cap when Narendra Modi came to power and now that’s down to just 9 per cent, he underlined why each day of delay in privatisation was only costing the taxpayer. He was equally welcoming of the new farm laws and bluntly said that Punjab’s farmers are the “most pampered in India,” yet their productivity is falling. And that the protests were not just based on incorrect perceptions of what the new farm laws were but an attempt to corner the Modi government, to boost the sagging fortunes of the Congress by deliberately misleading farmers.
He was the rare editor who was unfailingly balanced, open-minded, respectful of all opinions, fiercely independent, always hungry to learn and grow. He wore his heart on his sleeve and was never afraid to call up anyone, even rival editors, to say: “Please help me understand.”
It is for this reason that Sunil’s columns were unmissable and his opinions impactful. One of his most provocative opinion pieces titled “Net Neutrality Nonsense” in 2015 created a stir. It called out the hypocrisy of the positions of multinational Big Tech, of Indian and global regulators and of the free-internet activists. It asked for a more rational discourse, one that he argued should provide telecom operators the incentive to invest in increasing broadband connectivity across the country rather than just allocate capex to the government by way of spectrum fees.
Agree or disagree, he commanded respect, provided insight.
Last night, as news came in of Cairn suing Air India to enforce its arbitration award of $1.2 billion against the Government of India, I was reminded of a recommendation and a prediction Sunil made last December: “Government mustn’t get it wrong again on Cairn.” He said the Centre is likely to challenge the award that it lost which, he said, would be a mistake. He argued that it would go against former Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s promise to uphold global arbitration decisions. Unpredictable as his views were, he was a consistent voice of economic liberalism so I can imagine he would have had a strong “I-told-you-so” piece today as suing Air India as a proxy of the Indian Government is putting pressure on them to pay the award even as it adds another stumbling block on the road to its privatisation.
Sunil kept writing till he absolutely couldn’t. When I asked him why he was writing when he was so unwell, he said because the newsroom was short-staffed and he wanted to do all he could. With his signature candour, he aggressively pushed for free-market pricing of the vaccine even though he and his family were personally struggling immensely with Covid-19. In his last column, written as he was fighting the disease, he argued for not turning each death into a political attack on the government. India will suffer more if “we remain at war,” he said, acknowledging at the same time that the ruling party was “so spectacularly isolated”, like never before. The column was titled “Covid is the enemy, not the Government.”
In his passing away, we have lost one battle with our enemy. I have lost a friend and an editor I was privileged to work with and learn from. Beyond the professional and, yet linked to it, at a personal level, there is a deeper sense of loss. At the realisation that Sunil, like most gifted professionals, is impossible to replace. Often, I took for granted the commitment and competence he brought to the newsroom even in a year as hard as the one gone by. That gift of Sunil’s is his legacy and it’s our responsibility to build on.
Nights and days like this one also make us despair, they remind us just how little control we have over our own lives. His immensely supportive family of wife Namita and son Abhinav played a huge part in his confidence and in his ability to speak truth to power. I have deep admiration and respect for his entire family and his school friends who, he told me, were taking care of him “at the drop of a hat”. In a message to some of them days before he was admitted to the ICU at AIIMS, Sunil wrote: “Just holding on… waiting for a miracle… not much else can be done so listening to Bhimsen Joshi.” Just like the master’s music, Sunil Jain will live in the words he wrote, in the notes he struck.
This column first appeared in the print edition of The Indian Express on May 17, 2021 under the title ‘My friend, my editor’. Anant Goenka is Executive Director, Express Group, and publisher, The Financial Express